At the core of the Christian faith is a paradox, a counterintuitive approach to engaging the world. It can be expressed in different ways, using different images and metaphors, but the core of the paradox is consistent: to save your life you must lose it. It is only through dying that resurrection life becomes a reality in which we can participate.
I was thinking about this paradox in relation to the season we have just entered on the Christian calendar. Advent begins a new year for Christians, and the choice to place this time of newness and waiting in the darkest and coldest days of the year was a brilliant choice by our foremothers and forefathers. It is when the light is waning, when each day is increasingly shorter than the one before, and when nature begins to enter the process of dying, that Christians gather around the flickering glow to affirm that light always casts out the darkness.
Advent is a microcosm of the Christian macrocosm, because it is a four week participation in the paradox that is the Christian Tradition. This can be seen more clearly in 2020 than perhaps any other season during my lifetime. We begin our observance of Advent during a global health crisis. Covid-19 has taken the lives of more than 260K people in the US alone. We are in an economic recession, and our leaders lack the courage and willingness to provide our citizens with much needed economic support. Further, we have been in a contentious election season, and the systemic racism that has undergirded the American experiment since day one has been laid bare before us again and again as we have watched unarmed black men and women killed by the police. It seems an odd time to be talking about hope, which is Advent’s first gift to us.
I think our perception of hope has been conditioned by the microwave, sitcom culture in which we live. Sitcoms follow a predictable pattern: there’s a conflict, which often seems insurmountable. Yet, somehow, in under thirty minutes, there is a resolution, and everyone lives happily ever after. Until the next episode, that is. From this perspective hope seems like a guarantee. Yet, hope by definition is void of certainty. Hope is…well, just that. Hope.
The reason we need hope is because we are often confronted with situations that feel hopeless. Despair and hope are opposite sides of the same coin. Yet it is into this cold darkness that the flickering embers of Advent’s light comes, calling us to remain in hope. It’s a paradox. It’s counterintuitive. It’s also the heart of the Christian story.
There are two metaphors for hope during Advent that have come to really shape my imagination. The first is a tweet from pastor Jess Kast. She writes:
Advent is like using the glass ketchup bottle and waiting slowly for the ketchup to come out instead of the quick squeeze of the plastic bottle.
I can remember as a kid waiting for the ketchup to begin pouring, smacking the bottle on the little “57” on the side. Yet the ketchup couldn’t be rushed. As Mary Oliver reminds us, “Things take the time they take.” The same is true for Advent. It’s a call to wait, to anticipate, and to pay attention to our longings for a world made right.
The other metaphor or image comes from my friends who raise gardens. I didn’t realize this before, but seed catalogues come out sometime between November and January. It’s in the harsh and inhospitable winter that they begin plotting new growth and new life. That sounds a lot like Advent to me.
These two metaphors have come to define for me what it means to hope during Advent. It’s waiting for the ketchup to slowly emerge from the glass bottle. It’s choosing to order seeds in a season that isn’t conducive to new growth, trusting that Spring will come and nature will rise again.
As we enter Advent may we bring all of our hopes and longings for ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. May we hold our hope with conviction and patience, and may we begin plotting our role in the new life to come, even now.
In the silence of a midwinter dusk, there is a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen. You are aware of the beating of your heart. The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.
+ Frederick Buechner
Advent Candle Prayer: HOPE
Today we enter into the season of Advent. Advent is a time of waiting, reflection, and preparation. It reminds us that transformation takes time; its a process that we enter into again and again.
Advent begins by calling us to be people of hope, faith, and light.
As we light the first of the candles on the Advent wreath, may we open ourselves to the possibility of hope, and may we readily participate in the shining of God’s light in this world.